Evolving Faith

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day conference called Evolving Faith.  It was hosted and curated by some of my favorite Christian writers, Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans.  It took place in Montreat, North Carolina.  The campus was beautiful, nestled in the arms of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Walking around Lake Susan, exploring the streams and trails, there’s a deep sense of peace.  You feel in your bones that you are walking on sacred ground.

Now, what is evolving faith?  Each of the speakers at the conference offered a different definition.  Evolving faith is a faith that changes.  It adapts.  It breaks down.  It reconstructs.  It identifies problematic narratives and strives to imagine new ones.  Jen Hatmaker likened it to the story in Genesis about Jacob wrestling with God.  Evolving faith is a faith that challenges, questions, wrestles and, like Jacob, has the audacity to ask for a blessing anyway.  Jeff Chu introduced us to the “theology of the compost pile” where all the wretched, useless, and discarded things are transformed into rich soil that brings new life.  Evolving faith acknowledges the darkness in ourselves and in the world and chooses to light a candle anyway.

What I loved so much about this conference is that it addressed head-on all the topics that are notoriously avoided in United States’ churches. Things that are whispered in the back of our minds as we sit in sanctuaries were named boldly from the stage.  Speakers called out the idol of white supremacy, the strength, beauty and dignity of minority communities, the evils of the Trump administration, the immediacy of climate change, and the problematic fact that the majority attendees were white. Speakers called us to both “burn shit down” and strive to be peacemakers.  There was rage.  There was hope.  There was the call to live in tension.

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The Days After the Election

I think it’s safe to say that, no matter where you lie on the political spectrum, this week has been crazy.

On the day after the presidential election, a progressive Christian magazine I enjoy put out a call for readers to share their stories.  Wednesday was pretty turbulent for me emotionally and putting things into words is usually helps me process things, so I took the time to write about how I felt.

Usually, I keep my head down on social media when it comes to divisive current events.  I try to keep away from politics and anything that will cause division, judgement, or criticism.  I broke that rule on Facebook a few times this fall in outrage over our now president-elect’s words about women.  In the days after the election, though, I found that there was just too much going on inside me and found the words pouring out.  If I were to put my piece in a category, I would call it a lament: an outpouring of emotion that captures the pain of a moment in time.

I submitted my piece and, to my surprise, Sojourners published it on their website.  Before you read this post any further, please take a moment to read the piece, which can be found here. Continue reading

Urbana 15: Telling My Story

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend InterVarsity’s trip annual Urbana Conference.  For five days, St. Louis, Missouri, was invaded by 16,000 college students and adults seeking to learn about world missions.  This year’s conference was themed around one very important question: What story will you tell?

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Taken right before one of the large group sessions.

As a writer and avid reader, stories fuel my everyday life.  I breathe them in, soaking in the perspectives of others.  I breathe them out, letting my own experiences take shape through words.  Throughout the week, we heard countless stories from around the world.  We heard from indigenous people in the Pacific Island, refugees in Jordan, college students in Mexico.  We heard from the persecuted church in the Middle East–the stories of men and women imprisoned for their faith.  We heard the stories of our black American brothers and sisters, whose voices have been long silenced by racism and inequality.

We didn’t just hear their stories.  We entered into them.  Multicultural worship is a challenging, humbling experience.  It was uncomfortable at times.  We fumbled our way through Arabic, Korean, Hawaiian, and Swahili, to name a few of the languages.  My mouth stumbled over the strange words and sounds.  Even though it was different and awkward at points, entering into the songs of brothers and sisters from around the world gave me a larger picture of the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is for everyone, for every tribe, tongue, and nation.  I got to experience what that looks like at Urbana.

As a writer attending a conference centered around stories, I can’t merely describe what went on.  I need to take up the pen and join in, adding my words.

I suppose my Urbana story starts with answering a question: Why missions?

My whole life, I’ve felt very drawn to Europe.  Growing up, I remember reading about far-away places and having this sense of urgency.  I couldn’t explain it, but I needed to go there.  I needed to see these places with my own eyes.  I needed to walk the streets and see the faces of the people who lived there.  In 2013, I spent a semester studying abroad in London, England.  During my three and a half months there, I traveled a great deal.  Finally, I could see and experience the places I’ve been dreaming about my whole life.  Along the way, I learned a great deal.  I learned that the world is a dark, empty place, and that even though Europe is largely comprised of first-world nations, there are people who desperately need the light and love of Jesus.

Upon returning to school in the United States, it was a matter of months before I felt the need rise up in me again.  I had been thinking and praying about going into ministry for a while, but my thoughts and prayers began to turn overseas.  “What if,” I asked myself, “feeling drawn to Europe isn’t just me wanting to travel?  What if God wired me with this desire, growing it with time, into a calling?”

Eager to dedicate my life to God, I embraced the calling.  He wants me to go to Europe?  I’m all in.  But so much remained uncertain.  Where would I go?  What would I do there?  Who would I serve?  How would I find the money?  What does the missions field even look like?

Attending the largest student missions conference in the world seemed like the logical place to answer these questions.  Last week, I arrived in St. Louis, willing to go, wanting to serve, ready for God to point the way.  What I didn’t realize was that, although I was intellectually ready to take the plunge, my heart had a long way to go.

Let me pause here for a moment.  You should know that, although I feel very deeply, I’m not what one would call an emotional person.  I rarely cry.  I’m not very touchy-feely.  Emotional things don’t seem to impact me like they do others.  It’s as if my heart is sealed behind a series of walls and gates.  Within these walls, I feel very deeply and these feelings guide the majority of the large decisions I make.  But my heart and mind don’t often connect.  It takes time for the right keys to get into the right doors.

When one enters into service for the Kingdom of God, it is important for their heart and mind to align.

Going into Urbana, mine did not.  My brain was ready.  But, frankly, my heart didn’t actually care about the people I was supposed to be going out into the world to serve.  Of course,I didn’t realize any of this until after the fact.  More on that later.

The first half of the conference was extremely affirming.  To share a bit of my testimony, I grew up in a highly politicized church where one was treated differently if they held a different perspective.  My experience with the American Evangelical church is that it places certain values over others.  College was a wonderful time of exploring other worldview and perspectives.  However, I’ve been living at home for the past nine months.  Being back in this highly Republican community has me wondering if my family is crazy for caring about things like racial equality, LGBTQ rights, showing kindness to refugees, affirming women as leaders in the church, etc.  Through speakers and seminars at Urbana, God affirmed that we are not crazy and that we are not the only ones thinking about these issues.  He cares about them too.

As awesome as this affirmation was, I felt like something was missing.  “I’m at the largest student missions conference in the world”, I thought.  “Surely God brought me here to do more than affirm my perspective.”

I was right.

On Tuesday night, the large group session was dedicated to the persecuted church.  Individuals, often unnamed and unseen, told their stories of being imprisoned and tortured for their faith.  They talked about God empowering them to love their captors even in the darkest hours of their lives.  We then were given time and space to pray for the church.  Banners with different countries were raised and we could gather beneath them, praying for each nation.

It was a powerful night–16,000 people lifting their voices in prayer.  As I knelt on the hard concrete praying for Kenya, I felt God’s Spirit rising in me.  As I prayed, my words intangible even to me, I felt the keys to my heart unlock–The layers pulled back.  Finally, the deep desires of my heart were accessible and in the open.

“Lord, I want to go,” I prayed.  “I want to go.  I want to go.  I want to go.”  It was a prayer of frustration.  I came to Urbana hoping to find direction from God that would empower me to take the next step.  Where was my direction?  Where were my answers?  As the dust from my prayer settled, I felt God’s voice: Not yet, Amelia.  Wait.

I was confused.  “What do you mean I have to wait?” I asked God.  “I’m ready!”   But, up until that point, I was ready with my mind.  But my heart was sorely lacking.  That night, God opened the floodgates to my heart and prepared me to not only hear His voice in my mind, but in my spirit.

If I had to describe Wednesday in one word, I would say it was humbling.  With my newly opened heart, I came repeatedly before the Lord and listened to the words He had for me… These words were not comforting.

That morning, our passage in Bible study was the end of Matthew 25, where Jesus divides the sheep from the goats and says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me”.  As a large group, we studied the intricacies and implications of the passage deeply.  I emerged with the sense that, despite my readiness to go abroad, I hadn’t given much thought to the people I’d actually be serving.  I realized that when it came to serving others, I didn’t know how.

One of Wednesday’s speakers was David Platt, pastor and author of the books Radical and Follow Me.  His books were the catalysts of my decision to go into ministry.  I read them during a very spiritually challenging season and they pushed my desire to serve God with my life.  It was incredible hearing Platt speak.  The power, authority, and incredible love of God is so present in his voice and words.  He talked about the woman in Matthew 26 who pours a very expensive jar of perfume on Jesus’ head as an act of love and submission.

Platt’s words cut me like knives.  One statement hit my spirit like a ton of bricks: 1425524_1044940998901836_7089898850993416208_n

I see myself in that statement.  Here I was, trying to figure out how to get going when my heart and spirit had completely forgotten why I’m called to go in the first place.  In my ambitions to go abroad, I lost my heart for Christ.  Platt went on to say, “Missions is not meant to be your life.  Christ is your life.  Jesus is worth losing everything for.”

These words are so simple and straightforward, but my heart forgot.  I forgot what it feels like, what it means to love Jesus unconditionally.  My spirit churned and I felt God’s voice rising again, with words that were not comfortable:  Amelia, how can you go into the world and represent My Kingdom if you love yourself more than you love Me?  You want to serve me, but don’t know how.  The answer is simple: love My children.  Care for them.  Give yourself for them.  What you do for them, you do for Me.  Go, Amelia.  Feed My sheep.”

I left large group that day feeling burdened with God’s Spirit, wondering what living out this command looks like in a practical manner.  What does it look like?  How am I to care for others?  What skills and abilities do I have to contribute?  Where do I fit in the grand scheme of things?  How can I serve others with the gifts I have?  As I meditated on my questions, God slowly revealed answers.  I attended more seminars and large group sessions and began to receive smile answers.  I could go into what those answers were, but that would end in lots of tangents.  So I’ll start wrapping this up…

I went into Urbana feeling confident and ready.  I left feeling the opposite–small, weak, and inadequate.  There is so much to process.  There’s so much I don’t know.  Amid a big, dark world… I’m so small.  So unsure.  I’m leaving for England in less than a week and I don’t feel ready.  I’m stepping into the vast unknown with a one-way ticket and have no idea what is in store.

The most terrifying thing is that I honestly don’t know if I’m ever coming back.  At least, not permanently.

But maybe that’s the point.  God isn’t looking for people who are ready.  He’s not interested in how prepared I feel.  He cares about my heart.  He wants me in a position of weakness and humility, for it is then that I need Him most.  At Urbana, He showed me that my prayers need to shift from “Where will I go?” to “Show me how to love others the way You love me”.

I don’t need to have all the answers.  What I need is a heart for Christ.  Like the woman in Matthew with her alabaster jar, I need to place myself under God’s authority.  I need to relinquish control and let my story align with the beautiful story God is writing all across the globe, trusting that God knows what He is doing and that He will provide the next step.

I suppose the title of this post is a bit misleading.  Yes, this is the story of how my life was impacted by attending Urbana.  Additionally, it’s also the beginning of a new story–a story I don’t know the end to–a story in which I don’t hold the pen.  There is still so far to go in the journey of cultivating a heart for others.  But this is a start.

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Gateway Arch at sunrise.  Taken Friday, just before we headed for home.

Of Faith and Refugees

My Facebook newsfeed today was filled with opinions this morning.  This isn’t unusual, as I have friends on both sides of the political divide.  I usually don’t like to engage in such things on social media.  I don’t like to associate with a political party.  Such things breed division and strife–so I keep my opinions to myself.

But in lieu of current events and the hate that has risen in their wake, I’m finding it hard to remain silent.

As I’ve been following the debates regarding the Syrian refugee crisis, I have been absolutely appalled by the response from Christians.  My Facebook feed is filled with messages along the lines of “Close the boarders because we don’t want terrorists to get in”.  I saw a comment that said, “I’m all for helping the refugees, I just don’t want to let them in.”

Or, in other words, “I’m all for helping people as long as it doesn’t impact my life.”  “I’m all for taking care of the poor and needy, as long as my comfort isn’t threatened.”

This makes my blood boil.

What, then, is more valuable?  Comfort or human life?  The ease of the rich or the despair of the poor?

To make things clear, I understand the fear.  The refugees are people who are very different from us.  They look different, sound different, and follow a different religion. Differences are unknowns and unknowns are scary.  And yes, there is a risk that the wrong people can get in.  Is this a risk we are willing to take?

A couple of my friends posted links to a short piece on Relevant Magazine titled “What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees“.  I recommend giving it a read, for it is very good. It is a list of verses with little commentary, letting the Bible speak for itself.  These verses speak of loving the poor, caring for the needy, and putting the needs of others before your own.  They talk about setting aside what is comfortable in favor of preserving human life.

I’d like to add a verse to the list.  1 John 4:18:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (ESV)

Is allowing refugees into America worth it, despite the risk of letting terrorists in?  Absolutely.  Because perfect love, God’s love, casts out fear.

We, as Christians, are called to love the needy and care for the broken.  It’s not an option.  Loving one’s neighbor as ones self is not only a command, it’s the GREATEST command.  So are we going to obey? Are we going to trust that, even though there are unknowns and even though we are afraid, God is in control?

I realize that I am addressing this from a Christian perspective and you may not share my worldview. This is okay. Biblical rhetoric aside, I think my questions are still valid because this is, ultimately, not only a Christian issue. It is a human issue. These refugees aren’t faceless, soulless drones. They may be different, but they are human beings with just as much right to life as I. They have the same capacity to love, to feel, to dream as you and I do.

Are we, Christians and non Christians alike, going to set aside our comfort, riches, and fears, and care for the refugees?

I honestly don’t know what this looks like in my life.  As an American, I live a life of incredible privilege. There aren’t poor and homeless people lining up at my door. The refugees are on the other side of the world. But with privilege comes responsibility. If and when the time comes to take action, I hope that I am able to do what is RIGHT and not settle for what is EASY.

It’s a complicated issue.  There are a thousand arguments and counterarguments that can be made.  It can be discussed for hours on end.  Your opinion and worldview may be different than mine, and that’s okay. I don’t mind. Differences are not something to be afraid of. They are our greatest strength.

But I’m tired of remaining silent. I’ve been given a voice and am choosing to use it. So this is me, adding my thoughts to the universe.

Thanks for reading.

  

A new perspective on sharing my faith

I loathe being told to share my faith.

I mean, it’s something that we are called directly to do.  Jesus says in Matthew 28:16 to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  We’re encouraged to share our faith, to spread the good news, to be lights in the darkness of the world.

But in Christian circles, there’s a lot of guilting that goes on when it comes to evangelism.  So often, I come from those talks feeling like, by not sharing my faith, I’m doing something wrong.  And then I feel guilty.  I feel like I should share my faith out of obligation and duty, not because I want to.  So often, evangelism makes me extremely uncomfortable.  In order to do it, I feel like I must have all the answers, like I have to start going up to my classmates, shoving Bibles in their faces, and taking them through the Romans Road.  It makes me uncomfortable and inadequate. I feel pressured and that, if I don’t present the message well enough, I’ll be a failure.  Sharing faith in these ways sounds just seems unpleasant.  I don’t want to do it.  But then I feel guilty for not wanting to do something God clearly asks of us.

The thing is, I genuinely want to share my faith.  I want to tell people about the joy, the love, the security I have in Christ.  But I don’t want to demean others and I’m afraid of being seen as the Bible-shoving stereotype.

At IVCF last night, an old classmate came and talked about the dreaded topic.  What she said really hit home.

To summarize her message, she talked about talking about faith the same way we talk about things excited about.  We don’t have to have a perfect message.  The outcome of sharing our faith does not depend on us.  We don’t have to worry about how we are received, because God is bigger than that.  He can handle it.  Instead of preaching to people, we should talk about Jesus as if He’s a real person.  We shouldn’t spew off boring facts as if he’s merely a figure in a book.  Instead, we need to be open and honest about what He’s like, what He says, what He does, and what it’s like to hang out with Him.

Boldness is key, but not to belittle.  Not to condescend.  Not to preach.  We need to be bold in sharing our excitement about who He is and what He is doing in our lives.  Because if we’re excited, then it will spread to the people around us.

The other thing that is key is trust.  We need to trust that God is bigger than us.  He’s bigger than us, bigger than our circumstances, bigger than our voices.  We don’t have to defend Him.  He can defend Himself.  He knows what He is doing.

I’m not very good at sharing my faith.  I really struggle with this.  As previously stated, I’ve always felt this sense of obligation, that I should be doing more, saying more, preaching more–and this has always made me REALLY uncomfortable.  But all this time, I’ve been thinking about it the wrong way.  I don’t have to go out and do anything.  I just have to be me.  I simply have to live and not restrict my relationship with God to my personal life.  I have to let the love I have for my savior, my best friend, my beloved show.  I have to be open about Him–open about what He’s doing and willing to tell people about my excitement.

It’s encouraging to know that I don’t need to have it all together.  More than anything, though, it’s wonderful to walk out of a faith-sharing talk without feeling guilty.  For the first time ever, I actually feel good about being open about my faith.  Which is incredibly freeing.